CELLPHONE services were once again shut down in Karachi on Friday, reportedly due to threats of terrorism. Such shutdowns have now become a favoured tool of the government every time there is a significant threat of terrorism, especially during religious occasions and major national holidays. In the current year, cellphones have fallen silent nationwide on several occasions, including both Eids, during Muharram and when an official holiday was declared to protest an anti-Islam film. However, while in the case of most previous shutdowns the state gave the public advanced warning, on Friday cellphones in the metropolis went silent for over seven hours without any prior intimation. While the interior minister said the shutdown was necessitated by the threat of terrorism, it is also true that several high-profile visitors were in the city on Friday, including the prime minister, the chief of army staff and the naval chief. Hence, there is some discussion that the cellphones fell silent for the security of these officials.
There appears to be some truth to the claim that terrorists use cellphones to set off explosives. A Sindh government official quoted in this paper has said over 40 improvised explosive devices connected to cellphones have either exploded or been defused this year. However, we do not believe that cellphone bans are the best method to prevent acts of terrorism. If the authorities feel such actions are inevitable, prior warning must be given to the public so they are not caught unawares. For example in a teeming city like Karachi, panic levels can accelerate drastically if cellphones are abruptly silenced and people are unable to contact friends and relatives. The state must resort to cellphone shutdowns very selectively. They must not be used for discouraging revellers during festive occasions like New Year’s, or worse, to sabotage political gatherings in the name of countering terrorism.